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Each week, the coaches from Milestone Academic Counseling offer timely advice for high school students in the Princeton area.

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Most recent posting below. See other blog postings in the column to the right.

The mistake that hurts high school writers…and what to do about it

As learners, we reproduce what we see.  If the prose students read in school is always in the form of a textbook, should we be surprised if they write lackluster essays? 

Textbooks and essays have different purposes, which demand different styles.  Textbooks are written to answer questions and summarize information.  Good essays generate a question where there was none before and then answer it.

In accordance with their purpose, textbooks speak in generalizations that are rarely supported by evidence in the text.  The author of a textbook is assumed to be an expert, the reader a novice.  It is usually taken for granted that the reader wants a superficial survey, not penetrating analysis. 

Too often textbook writers compensate for simple subjects with complex language.  They tend to use elaborate syntax in the mistaken belief that complex sentences earn the right to be read.  For example: “That such rivalry would be the cause of all the trouble was hardly a fact of which people were unaware.”  Teachers may preach clarity, but if students are accustomed to reading complex syntax in school, they are likely to use the same style whenever they want to sound “smart.” 

Essays are written to make an argument, and have complex topics that demand clear language.  In textbooks, sentences are often self-contained units that make sense in any order.  Sentences in an essay build a case point by point, and the analysis is only as strong as its weakest link.  An essay writer must lead the reader through the argument carefully, and can never assume the reader “knows what she means.”

There are some steps a student can take to avoid writing in the style of McGraw-Hill:

  1. Get a copy of The Norton Reader.  You’ll find examples of well-written essays on a wide range of topics.
  2. When writing an essay, build an argument.  You must say something disputable, and then prove it.
  3. Write short, simple sentences.  You can elaborate later if you need to.
  4. Support each point.  You are not yet an expert.
  5. Clarify each step in your reasoning.  Tell the reader the purpose of each paragraph.


Moderated by Jake Cornelius.

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